stealing an ambulance for a joy ride

Entrance and intake processing is finally complete. Before the doctor moves me from the emergency room to the next phase of my visit, he bestows the knowledge that I may have bipolar disorder

Explaining that bipolar disorder exhibits extreme highs and low in one’s mood, he tells me he has arrived at this diagnosis because of my behavior. At this point, he has patiently tolerated hours of my excessively cheerful and inappropriate chatter, joking, and rambling . . . all while bandaging my freshly slit wrists.

But now it is time to leave the emergency room. My next destination in the hospital complex awaits. I am en route for my first stay in a hospital psychiatric ward.

Remotely located apart from the psychiatric hospital, the mental health ward is almost 10 miles away. Hopped up in my manic state, I am thrilled to learn that my next leg of my journey through the mental health care system would involve a transport via ambulance as required by hospital protocol. How exciting!

Boarding the ambulance, I maintain my cheery attitude and amiable disposition. I instantly make friends with the ambulance driver, a young black man who looks to be in his early 30’s. High with mania and craving companionship and conversation, I convince him to disregard corporate code and allow me to ride along in the front passenger seat. My affable demeanor disarmed him, and he readily agreed, stating, “well, you aren’t acting like a ”convalescent.“ So I suppose it will be alright.” He shares a knowing smile with me. My enthusiastic mood was contagious and compelling.

On the road, I learn that the driver’s lenient approach to hospital rules might have been due to his lack of experience. It turns out that today is his first day on the job. Today is also his first transport to the behavioral health unit located off hospital grounds in an unfamiliar area. The unchartered roads, coupled with a confusing map, prove to be challenging to decipher, and he loses his way to our destination. Mobile phones did not exist in 1989, and his only recourse is to drive around aimlessly, searching for a phone booth. He spots a payphone at a grocery store and hurriedly pulls into the parking lot, jumps out, and approaches the phone.

And there I am . . . all alone in the passenger front seat. . . keys left in the ignition. My manic mind is an overpowering competitor against my ability to maintain reasonable and rational thought. My thoughts are swirling . . . my ideas are thrilling . . . the possibilities are irresistible. 

The temptation is too powerful. Without pause, I leap over the console into the driver’s seat, wrap my hand around the keys in the ignition, and give them a forceful turn. I throw the gear into drive. 

I head towards the exit and out of the parking lot. Finding myself congested traffic, I divert my attention between negotiating the road and a dizzying display of controls and gages. I begin scanning the colors and shapes of the dozens of switches and knobs set in the control panel. 

While I’m unsure of which button will do what function, there is no doubt in my mind what I want to find. I am on a mission. I want the magic switch that will deliver the celebratory lights, sirens, and horns that will transform the ambulance into the iconic and unmatched tool of rescue that I know it can be. I want to zoom down the street as the conductor in a private parade glowing in a spectacle of frenetic alarms and spotlights.

After a few minutes of flipping random switches in near-standstill traffic, I fail to launch my impromptu light and sound show. Losing interest, I decided that it might be a good idea to turn around. It was time to pick up my driver and relinquish the ambulance.

As the massive first response vehicle rolled into the parking lot, I see my driver standing by the payphone affixed to the wall. He is holding the phone cradle in one of his hands; his other hand braced against the wall. His hair is a mess as if he’d been pulling it. As I drive up, his face bears a look of pure terror mixed with confusion and a little bit of rage.

Still reveling from the pleasurable effects of full-blown mania, I try to make light of his unexpected complication. . . “hey, it was only a joke . . .oh come on, lighten up . . . see I brought it right back???” 

His former friendly disposition had disappeared. Instead of his relaxed and empathetic countenance, there is a look of absence — of nothingness. There is no grin, no comment, not even a growl. He stares at me with cold eyes and a grim mouth.

Holding up a hand to stop me before I try to offer another apology, he walks me towards the back of the ambulance. His entire demeanor makes one thing very clear. He did not share in my delight of ambulance hijacking. He stoically motions me towards the back door, unlocks, and throws it open. Turning his head and looking off into the distance, his booming voice serves up an authoritative command. “Get in the back!” 

I climb in, sit down, settle in, and remain “in the back” for the rest of my transport. This time, there is no friendly, casual chit chat with my exasperated driver.

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